RODENT OF THE WEEK: You are what your father ate


As they say, you are what you eat. And if you’re a mouse, you’re also what your father ate.

So say researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the University of Texas at Austin. In a study published this week in the journal Cell, they report that a father’s diet influences how metabolic genes function in his offspring.

The research team fed some male mice a normal diet, while other mice got a low-protein diet. All the males mated with females who ate the same healthy diet. Sure enough, the offspring of the protein-deprived fathers had hundreds of genetic changes that weren’t seen in the mouse pups whose fathers ate the normal amount of protein. The changes were observed even when the fathers never met their offspring.


Among the genes that were modified were some involved in making fat and cholesterol. Study leader Dr. Oliver Rando of U. Mass said those changes were probably meant to give the sons and daughters a boost. “It’s consistent with the idea that when parents go hungry, it’s best for offspring to hoard calories,” he said in a statement distributed by Cell.

The study adds to a body of evidence suggesting that parents – and even grandparents – can pass down traits through so-called epigenetic factors. Earlier this year, a study published in the journal Nature found that male rats who ate a high-fat diet sired daughters who had impaired glucose tolerance.

A similar mechanism is probably at work in humans too, Rando said. A famous study known as the Overkalix Cohort Study found that men who had a poor diet during their teens were more likely to have grandchildren who suffered from diabetes, heart disease and weight problems.

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